Yuja Wang and the Art of Performance

It is SO great to read an article about a pianist that ranges from literature to fashion to romance. Thanks to the New Yorker, the indispensable magazine.

What is one to think of the clothes the twenty-nine-year-old pianist Yuja Wang wears when she performs—extremely short and tight dresses that ride up as she plays, so that she has to tug at them when she has a free hand, or clinging backless gowns that give an impression of near-nakedness (accompanied in all cases by four-inch-high stiletto heels)? In 2011, Mark Swed, the music critic of the L.A. Times, referring to the short and tight orange dress Yuja wore when she played Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto at the Hollywood Bowl, wrote that “had there been any less of it, the Bowl might have been forced to restrict admission to any music lover under 18 not accompanied by an adult.” Two years later, the New Criterion critic Jay Nordlinger characterized the “shorter-than-short red dress, barely covering her rear,” that Yuja wore for a Carnegie Hall recital as “stripper-wear.” Never has the relationship between what we see at a concert and what we hear come under such perplexing scrutiny. Is the seeing part a distraction (Glenn Gould thought it was) or is it—can it be—a heightening of the musical experience?


During the intermission of a recital at Carnegie Hall in May, Yuja changed from the relatively conventional long gold sequinned gown she had worn for the first half, two Brahms Ballades and Schumann’s “Kreisleriana,” into something more characteristically outré. For the second half, Beethoven’s extremely long and difficult Sonata No. 29 in B-Flat, known as the “Hammerklavier,” she wore a dress that was neither short nor long but both: a dark-blue-green number, also sequinned, with a long train on one side—the side not facing the audience—and nothing on the other, so that her right thigh and leg were completely exposed.


As she performed, the thigh, splayed by the weight of the torso and the action of the toe working the pedal, looked startlingly large, almost fat, though Yuja is a very slender woman. Her back was bare, thin straps crossing it. She looked like a dominatrix or a lion tamer’s assistant. She had come to tame the beast of a piece, this half-naked woman in sadistic high heels. Take that, and that, Beethoven!


Schiff characterized the work as “the greatest” and “most monumental” of Beethoven’s sonatas, “a work that everybody respects and reveres but very few people love.” Schiff’s object was to communicate his own “deep love for this piece,” and he began by talking about Beethoven’s metronome markings, which are “incredibly fast” and are ignored by most pianists, who play the piece slowly and ponderously. The piece “is not pretty,” but it is not “heavy-handed . . . not made of lead.” Schiff mocked the pianists who protract the long third movement to show that “we are very deep and profound. . . . You can have lunch and dinner and breakfast, and we are still sitting here.” Schiff went on to say, “If you play this piece at Beethoven’s tempi, then it’s not ponderous anymore. . . . It is not a piece in marble. . . . It is incredibly human and alive.”


The arresting photograph that was chosen out of the hundreds, possibly thousands, of pictures Dukovic took of Yuja at the piano and, later, in the first-floor showroom, posed full figure in front of a piano with its lid up, represents her as no concertgoer has ever seen her. The wild disorder of the hair has never been seen in a concert hall. (Yuja’s hair tends to stay in place throughout the most rousing of her performances.) And the foreshortened, oversized hand is an obvious deviation from the consensus we call reality. Will Yuja cringe when she looks at the photograph? Or will she see it as expressive of her impudent, defiant nature and find in it, almost hear in it, an echo of her incomparable musicality? ♦ Read more…